Entertainment

The Nicolas Cage Movies To Know Before His 'Massive' Action Comedy

'The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent' isn't only for super-fans, but it helps to know 'Con Air' from 'Face/Off.'

Lionsgate
Lionsgate
Lionsgate

The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, a slick meta action-comedy starring Nicolas Cage as a heightened version of his oddball offscreen persona, opens with a (non-Cage) character enjoying a Nicolas Cage movie. On TV, we see Cage playing longhaired ex-Army Ranger Cameron Poe in Con Air, one of the ‘90s movies that helped the actor transition from eye-bugging eccentric leading man to world-saving action hero. Eventually, the scene gets interrupted by armed attackers, launching a kidnapping mystery that will drive the movie’s plot, but in those brief opening moments of couch potato bliss, co-writer and director Tom Gormican signals that his movie will take place in a world like our own: one where Nicolas Cage is a beloved, if occasionally absurd, figure.

As Gormican has acknowledged in interviews, there’s no making this movie, a kidnapping thriller about a celebrity (Cage, as himself) teaming up with his biggest fan (a delightful Pedro Pascal) to take on the cartel, without Cage’s willing participation. Other actors have done the self-referential “playing yourself” thing before – John Malkovich with Being John Malkovich or Jean-Claude Van Damme with JCVD – but few have the type of careening, genre-hopping career Cage has. His filmography, from early ‘80s hits like Moonstruck and Raising Arizona to recent genre experiments like Mandy and Pig, is rife for plundering. His public persona, a self-aware performance of fame as a goofy magic show, lends itself to parody. As a star, he’s almost too perfect for a movie like this.

Perhaps for that reason, Unbearable Weight’s real subject is fandom, specifically the way viewers identify with and project themselves onto the actors they worship. Unsurprisingly, the film is laced with allusions to Cage’s work, but enjoying Unbearable Weight doesn’t require a PhD in Cage-ology and it never collapses under the weight of its own references. Still, there are a handful of key movies, some more obscure than others, you might want to have a passing familiarity with in order to get the most out of the projects’s madcap survey of Cage’s many, many talents.

TriStar/Getty Images
TriStar/Getty Images
TriStar/Getty Images

Guarding Tess (1994)

This light-hearted comedy, released in the wake of The Bodyguard and In the Line of Fire, finds Cage playing a Secret Service Agent assigned to protect Shirley MacLaine’s First Lady. In Unbearable Weight, Pascal’s obsessed fan Javi finds comfort in Guarding Tess and draws a parallel between the story and his own life. Along with Con Air, it’s one of the only Cage movies where a clip appears in the actual film, and its inclusion is indicative of Gormican’s freewheeling approach to Cage’s filmography. Guarding Tess is probably not anyone’s favorite Nicolas Cage movie, but it’s special to Javi, a collector and aspiring screenwriter who prides himself on knowing Cage’s career inside and out.

Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures
Buena Vista Pictures

The Rock (1996), Con Air (1997), and Face/Off (1997)

For the purposes of Unbearable Weight, this trilogy of action movies, released in rapid succession after Cage’s Oscar-winning turn in Leaving Las Vegas, represents the pinnacle of Cage’s career. In The Rock, he played a scientist who gets recruited to save the world; in Con Air, he’s an Army Ranger tasked with landing a hijacked plane of convicts; in Face/Off, he’s an evil mastermind who gets his face removed and placed on the body of his sworn enemy. Each one is a chiseled, gleaming diamond of mid-90s big budget decadence, spectacle, and swagger. As Unbearable Weight gets more and more unhinged, descending into shoot-outs and car chases, Cage gets called on to serve in this action movie mold. That Gormican never quite reaches the explosive, bullet-ridden highs of the material he’s riffing on probably has more to do with a lack of resources than a lack of ambition. Quite simply, they don’t make ‘em like this anymore.

Warner Brothers Pictures
Warner Brothers Pictures
Warner Brothers Pictures

The Wicker Man (2006)

For many, The Wicker Man marked a turning point in Cage’s career where audiences began to view him as more meme than man. Director Neil LaBute’s interpretation of the British folk horror classic is an odd, prickly work and Cage’s performance is one of his most expressive and unencumbered. Everyone remembers “the bees,” a scene that launched a thousand memes, but what about the part where he kicks Leelee Sobieski into a wall? For better or worse, The Wicker Man seeded an idea of Cage as a “bad” actor that has festered and mutated in corners of the internet for over a decade. Unbearable Weight, a movie that often feels generated by the Reddit hive-mind, likely wouldn’t exist without it.

Roadside Attractions
Roadside Attractions
Roadside Attractions

Joe (2013)

Loyal Cage fans know that he’s always putting in the work. Even in the 2010s, a period when Cage starred in more than a handful of unremarkable VOD thrillers, he could still be relied on to give an excellent, understated performance in a movie like Joe, a thriller that finds Cage’s title character protecting a young boy (Tye Sheridan) from his abusive father. It’s important because David Gordon Green, the prolific director of Joe, has a key cameo in the beginning of Unbearable Weight. Also, in a recent GQ profile, the director revealed Cage brings his own “amazing hand-carved knife” to the steakhouse, further adding to the ever-expanding Cage personal mythos.

Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures
Universal Pictures

The Croods: A New Age (2020)

What is Nicolas Cage’s highest grossing movie of all time? While you might assume it’s one of his Jerry Bruckheimer produced blockbusters, like the globe-trotting heist adventure National Treasure, it’s actually the animated family movie The Croods, where Cage voices the caveman patriarch Grug Crood. The sequel, The Croods: A New Age, gets a direct shout-out in the movie by Tiffany Haddish’s CIA Agent character. Again, The Croods receiving more onscreen love than many of Cage’s other acclaimed performances reveals the guiding principle of Unbearable Weight’s approach: the more random the better.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat.

Dan Jackson is a senior staff writer at Thrillist Entertainment. He’s on Twitter @danielvjackson.

Entertainment

With One Orgy, 'Queer as Folk' Sets a New TV Standard

Peacock's reboot of the gay drama is finally giving queer disabled people some of the representation they've been seeking on television.

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Everything is ready for the orgy. The snacks and drinks are prepared, the disco ball is hanging, and there are mechanical lifts to help people in and out of their wheelchairs. As a few guests mingle and a go-go dancer gyrates, Marvin (played by Eric Graise) rolls onto the stage in his wheelchair to act as emcee. With the help of a sign-language interpreter, he kicks things off by announcing, “I know you’re all dying to tear each other’s clothes off, or to have your attendants take them off for you.” This is no ordinary orgy; it’s “#F*CK Disabled People,” the titular orgy from Episode 4 of Queer as Folk.

The Queer as Folk reboot, released this month on Peacock, is already far more diverse than the versions of the show that came before it: more racially diverse, more body types, more genders, and multiple disabled actors in key roles. Episode 4 pushes the envelope beyond almost anything seen on network TV. It’s the kind of representation that disabled viewers-and actors-have been dreaming about, centring on a queer disabled orgy and one stunningly beautiful sex scene.

Ryan O’Connell, who both co-writes and acts in the series, recognized the reboot’s potential when it came to better representing the lives of queer disabled people like himself. Key to this was sharing the screen with multiple disabled actors, including recurring appearances by Graise. Marvin’s presence had already sold O’Connell on the show when he began meeting with series developer Stephen Dunn, who had previously directed the coming-of-age movie Closet Monster. “He was like, ‘I also want you to star in it too,’ and I was like, ‘Wait, you want two disabled people?'” says O’Connell.

O’Connell grew up enjoying the sexy, soapy escapades of the American Queer as Folk, Showtime’s five-season adaptation of the British series of the same name. Amid widespread bigotry and the AIDS epidemic, the two popular shows offered a rare picture of happy gay life. But O’Connell longed for a reflection of himself on the screen. That impulse eventually led him to create Special, the Netflix sitcom about a gay man with cerebral palsy seeking love, sex, and friendship. Queer as Folk gives him another special opportunity: to tell sexy, soapy, positive LGBTQIA+ stories with an ensemble cast wherein he wouldn’t be the only disabled character. “I was so shocked in a way that was truly depressing, but it’s so rare as disabled people that we get any kind of inclusion whatsoever, let alone that there’s two of us,” O’Connell says. “Immediately, writing for the reboot, I felt a sense of ease.”For Graise, working on a show written by O’Connell was a “dream come true.” He continues, “I’d always said there needs to be a disabled person in the writers’ room, but I had no idea how significant it would be and how much it meant to me. And even Stephen Dunn has a disabled friend who Marvin is very much inspired by.”

Marvin is outgoing, even wild in his energy. When we meet him at a bar in the first episode of the series, he acts like he owns the place, flirting and serving up wicked verbal jabs with equal ease. Before we get to know him better, O’Connell’s shy, sheltered Julian Beaumont seems to fade into the background by comparison. Initially, he serves mostly as a foil to his more outgoing older brother, Brodie (Devin Way), who, in many ways, is the chaotic core around which the rest of the ensemble orbits. During the first three episodes, the brothers, along with Brodie’s on-again, off-again lover Noah (Johnny Sibilly), convert their shared New Orleans home into the epic party house known as “Ghost Fag.” It’s Ghost Fag that attracts Marvin, in the fourth episode, with the idea of hosting a queer disabled orgy. We don’t learn as much about Marvin’s background, but it’s clear he’s made himself a cornerstone of the LGBTQIA+ community despite the everyday ableism he faces.

Beyond the surface differences, Julian and Marvin couldn’t be more divergent. In addition to their differing disabilities (Marvin, like Graise, is a double amputee), they come from disparate economic classes and have radically contrasting outlooks on life. Julian protects his vulnerability with an introverted lifestyle and a carefully cultivated routine, while Marvin hides his behind a boisterous exterior. Just like real life, not all members of a marginalized group get along, or even have very much in common.

“I don’t ever try to feel the burden of representation because there’s no point-you have to write from a place of truth,” says O’Connell, who wrote Episode 4 with Alyssa Taylor. “It was really fun creatively to have these two disabled characters who are so wildly different from each other in how they conduct themselves in their relationship to disability and to sex and all those things, but also I think in Episode 4 it was really interesting to show their commonalities.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

Both Marvin and Julian get laid over the course of the episode, but even before their clothes come off, the orgy scene fills the screen with something seldom seen on TV: disabled people in all their sexual glory. The scenario was inspired by a 2015 disabled sex party co-hosted in Toronto by Andrew Gurza, the show’s disability awareness consultant. After Gurza joined QaF, he mentioned the party in the writers’ room. “Mine was a lot more tame than this should be,” Gurza recalls telling them. “I’d like this to be a lot racier.”

Gurza even appears in a sex scene during the episode. “Being together on the show was an amazing moment,” says O’Connell, who cites Gurza as one of his inspirations. “He’s so honest and demands that his voice be heard and makes no apologies for that, and I try to do the same.”

As the orgy continues, both characters hook up with sex workers. It’s clear the actors and creators wanted to affirm that sex work is work. “It’s incredibly difficult work, not only the physical labour but the emotional space you have to hold for somebody to make them feel seen and heard and not judged. It makes me happy to showcase their work in a more positive light,” O’Connell notes.

Sachin Bhatt, who plays Ali, the sex worker hired by Marvin, agrees. He adds that his role is an all-too-rare example of a Southeast Asian man being sexual on-screen. “Anyone who’s not a cisgender, white male has many more mountains to climb,” Bhatt says. “So for me it was really exciting to play this sex worker because they wouldn’t typically cast an Indian for this role.”

Peacock
Peacock
Peacock

While their relationship is transactional to begin with, Ali is respectful, playful, and caring throughout his interactions with Marvin. However, his feelings for his client intensify during Episode 4 as the pair connect alone in a room at Ghost Fag. “We bonded instantly,” Bhatt recalls of Graise. “It was very important to both of us that we get the intimacy and the vulnerability right.”

For Graise, who also appeared on Netflix’s Locke & Key, that actorly connection made the sequence what it is. “We spent a lot of time kiki’ing off-set and discussing what we wanted out of this scene for both of us. The scene wasn’t just about me. It’s also Ali exploring Marvin’s body in a way that he’s never explored with anyone before, and his insecurities and trepidations about interacting with a disabled body.”

Unlike previous interactions shown between them, Ali asks to top Marvin this time-and to interact with his body in new ways. “Can I touch your legs?” Ali asks. This was influenced by Graise’s own life, as someone he dated for three years realized he’d never touched Graise’s legs. After some tender caressing, Marvin wraps his thighs around Ali and they make love. Graise’s background as a dancer is evident in his elegant movement throughout the scene, which contrasts with some of the polished, more “Hollywood”-style sequences that appear elsewhere in the series.

“Sachin and Eric really fucking landed that plane,” O’Connell says. “It was everything I want in a sex scene, which is that it was vulnerable, it was tender, it was awkward, and it was sexy.”Beyond the new Queer As Folk, it’s rare for media to let disabled people be either queer or sexy. O’Connell cited a few other examples, such as Jillian Mercado’s role in The L Word: Generation Q or the work of playwright and actor Ryan J. Haddad, but it’s sparse overall. With one episode, Queer as Folk has set a high bar for other shows to follow, and the series as a whole demonstrates how disabled actors can portray real, complex, and flawed human beings.

“A cognitive dissonance happens when we watch things on our TV screens, where, all of a sudden, we want things to be simplified,” O’Connell says. “Isn’t it art’s job to reflect humanity accurately?

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Kit O’Connell is the Digital Editor at the Texas Observer, and lives in Austin, Texas with their spouse and two cats. Follow them @KitOConnell.

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